Where is the Theological Battle Against ISIS?

As if the tragedy of Brussels was not bad enough; inevitably, Donald Trump weighed in. The man who cannot summon a majority of support in his own political party thousands of miles away was, somehow, national news across the UK this morning because he said that Muslims in Britain did not do enough to report signs of extremism within their communities. Frankly, I have no idea if they do or not. Nor do I understand what possessed ITV to give Mr Trump an international soap box, other than the shameful hope that he would say something senselessly inflammatory for their entertainment.

What I did find problematic, and pertinent to the national conversation in the UK, was the response of the Muslim Council of Britain, which describes itself as the UK’s largest Muslim umbrella body.

In his response to Trump’s comments about communities not reporting extremists in their midst, Miqdaad Versi, the MCB’s assistant secretary-general, said “We have to understand how much of this is due to them being Muslim communities or just a community of criminality which people are working within? And we have to try and not conflate the two together.” Indeed, the MCB clearly do not want to have the Islamic religion, or Muslims as a community of people, in the same conversation as terrorism, which they are treating as a criminal matter. The MCB’s press release condemning the Brussels attacks manages not to use the words “Islam” or “Muslim”, nor even “religion”, “extremism”, or “ISIL”. Instead it speaks only of “killers” and “murderers”.   

Fair enough, you might say, why should they recognise people committing atrocities in the name of their religion and dignify them with the label Muslim, even if you qualify it with “extremist”? Well, there are a number of reasons. 

In the first place, simply calling them criminals won’t wash. Criminals look for power and profit in the here and now, criminals do not blow themselves up in the name of crime. Pretending that this is a simple law-and-order issue is so obviously ridiculous that it damages the credibility of those speaking on behalf of the wider Muslim community. 

The second reason is that this is, self evidently, a religious conflict and, like it or not, if someone calls themselves a Muslim, or a Christian or an atheist for that matter, it’s down to the other members of that faith not only to disown their actions, but to positively refute their ideology. I am pretty sure that if I showed up on YouTube taking heads in the name of Christ and Pope Francis there would be a fairly swift, comprehensive, theological refutation of my actions coming from every level of the Church, from the Vatican to my local parish. 

Some imams do speak out agains the version of Islam proclaimed by ISIL and their ilk, but what is definitely missing from the British national conversation is a clear theological counter-narrative from within the Muslim community itself, one which goes beyond warning about Islamophobia and praising diverse society, and which addresses the nuts and bolts of their faith. 

All too often, it is left to politicians to say “this is not real Islam”. But who are people going to believe: the politician, or the guy on the TV holding the Koran and burning the Union Jack? British civil society, and politicians generally, have no credibility when it comes to talking about religion, in fact they have made a positive virtue out of not “doing God” for some time now. The inability of politics and government to understand and address fundamentally religious problems means that, for example, the Government programme for preventing extremism in schools focuses primarily on social markers. Teachers can spot the kid sitting on their own day after day, but are any of them equipped to know the difference between kids discussing “real Islam” and extremism? Are you? I am certainly not. 

As long as Islam, as a system of belief, rather than a style of dress or a social distinction, remains a mystery to the majority of people in this country, they will continue to think of it only in the context of “is it or is it not violent jihad?”

That is the challenge before the Muslim Council of Britain, and other organisations like it: if they want a more closely knit society in Europe, where Muslims are not viewed as cultural outsiders, stop telling us what Islam is not, and start telling us what it IS.

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